Kaiser Kuo gave an interview about a wide range of topics with regards to Chinathat was stimulating for many topics that I rarely address here. However, I wanted to veer away from my relatively strict adherence to economic and financial writing to follow up on some of the topics he raised.
1.We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.
The Chinese relationship with history is one of the most interesting to witness and something I do not think most people, myself include can fully grasp. China has left behind its communist past and entered an era of individual dictatorship but what that means for the future remains to be seen with all commentary little more than speculation. It is inaccurate as many do to argue that China has no understanding of major events or people like Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, or Mao. They just understand them very differently than what most of us think of as a understanding them. My students hear stories from grandparents about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. They receive little if any and a highly edited version in any class they might take, so their totality of understanding will be like grasping a slice rather throwing their arms around the topic. However, the know clearly there was great suffering and many died. Oral history for many years was how history was transmitted, with people giving their perspective, and this is how a lot of modern Chinese history is passed on. In my office, I have both Warhol portraits of Mao as well as pictures from the Cultural Revolution one among them flogging professors as capitalist pigs. Students see this and immediately get knocked kneed from seeing a Mao portrait then look at me and their knees start knocking more unsure as to why I have these pictures on my wall and what I am going to do them. History has a absolute but complex grip on Chinese that is difficult for anyone to understand. My great-grandmother died when I was young was almost 100 and travelled across America in a covered wagon when she was young but flew in a 747 across it later in life. My mother before she died spent a couple days interviewing on her memories and experiences of such a time in American history. I have this idea for a book project to collect oral histories from elderly in China about their lives with no other intent to save a record of what people remember and have lived through in truly one of the most amazing times in world history with first hand witnesses.
2.Liberal democracy is always on a precipice
Another point I think Kaiser points out and profoundly grasps, that most do not, is the semi-capriciousness and delicateness of democracy that we often take for granted. It is taken for granted by people on the political right and the left how profoundly imbedded into American or European democracy these principles are. Consequently, I personally see a failure to safe guard the principles of democracy above the interests of a political party or specific political issue. Democrats in America are all for free speech until it is someone doing unfriendly research on global warming and Republicans are all for individual freedom until it comes to the surveillance state. My concern for the United States is primarily about how we are accepting an increasingly illiberal democracy on all sides placing individual parties (neither is innocent) or specific issues (many guilty parties here) above the life blood of democracy. I am not saying there are not difficult issues that need to be addressed but we have taken expedient approaches that consistently place an issue above a principle and then wonder why a law or regulation is being used by the government in unintended ways. Liberal democracy is sustained by people protecting the principles that aid us all and not just myself at one moment in time. It would seem a little more humility is in order for people of all political affiliations.
3.“Baidu exists to expand the information horizon for ordinary Chinese internet users.”
Seriously, who are we kidding with this statement? Baidu is the business side of the Chinese propaganda ministry. Baidu has done some great things like the ones he mentions but to think that Baidu does anything beyond serve the whims of its Beijing masters is fantasy. I should note that I understand the dilemma faced by companies like Baidu. Baidu is allowed to stay in business because they do what Beijing tells it to do. You can bet that if they announced they were removing internet search constraints, they would be shut down before I finished typing this sentence. The decisions people and companies make about how much to self censor in China is a uniquely individual one and many will come to different conclusions for different reasons. Personally, there are three-and-a-half things I will not talk in most any context: a) Taiwan b) Tibet c) Tiananmen d) The Party with the caveat except when it concerns matters directly related to economic and financial policy. I take this view as a mix of what is my role, what is my area of expertise, and what can I contribute. Other than that, I have no problem speaking my mind in most any forum. While I am certain I am on the black list for Chinese journalists, I can say unequivocally I have never had one problem about anything I have written or said that was primarily about China. My university has never asked me to censor myself about my work on the Chinese economy. My university has never asked me to change anything in my syllabi and I once taught a class on the writings of Milton Friedman. I should note I don’t talk much about my views on China in class only because I believe it is my job to focus on the course material which draws from all kinds of sources rather than use it as a platform to push my views. Right now everyone has to figure out how far to push that line. Everyone has different risk levels and even points at where that line exists for them. Let me give you two anecdotes. I was recently approached by a major news program and after asking me some questions they asked if I knew someone Chinese in a specific area that could answer some questions for them. I said I thought so but before I passed on their names, I would need to check with them. I reached to a couple of contacts and no one wanted to talk publicly or even off the record about the economy for fear of what would happen. That is the state of modern China. Even the economy is increasingly off limits. Then I was having lunch with someone and we had been talking about Chinese history and they mentioned that the environment has changed so much in China that people are now reporting other people if they hear things in a conversation that are not positive about the government. I was floored and asked them to clarify wondering if this just referred to President Xi or something. They shook their head and said no. Our conversation wouldn’t be reported because they were talking to a white guy and most people probably could not understand. However, if they talked in Chinese in a negative way about either the local government, people will now report on each other to authorities. I will almost never criticize anyone for making an honest decision about what they feel comfortable with but I will criticize someone who is delusional about the decision they have made. To say that Baidu does anything but provide the information the government wants people to have is simply delusional.
4.Reporting on China “becomes a place where there’s nothing but political and religious repression, toxic air, venal officials, crass nouveaux riches, and heavy-handed censorship.”
To be fair there is a degree of truth in his complaint but it is buried under an avalanche of illogical delusions atop the apex of hypocrisy. Let me give you just a couple things to think about. First, for someone from a company whose primary purpose to enforce a censorship regime that ensures only one viewpoint to complain about the lack of diversity of reporting is the sheer apex of hypocrisy. Your job is to make sure there is only one view point and then complain when those you do not control have another view point. Yes, news around the world tends to focus on negative events but this is not in any way unique to Chinese coverage. What is unique is that in most other places there is not the brutal oppression of those who do not toe the party line. Second, when the Global Times, Xinhua, or People’s Daily provide less xenophobic, nationalistic, sabre rattling, and more balanced contextual coverage of Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, its own human rights record, health scandals, stock market, or the United States just to name a few then you might have some argument. Otherwise this argument is nothing other than propagandistic drivel designed to force everyone around the world to report what Beijing and yes its executioner Baidu want it to report. To complain as part of the Chinese censorship/media regime that China does not get a fair shake from foreign media when you ensure only one view point gets through and that view points is for some countries virulently anti-foreigner smacks of self-deluding hypocrisy.
5.Egg headed intellectuals critiquing China
This point by Kuo is especially puzzling and it is unclear if he is referring to Chinese or foreign intellectuals or both. Part of the problem is that Chinese intellectuals who I know first hand have a range of opinions are afraid to speak up. For someone so ingrained in the censorship regime engendering fear in anyone who does not just repeat the Beijing talking points speaks to the depth of brainwashing that takes place. I know first hand that Chinese intellectuals have a range of view points from those that are stridently anti-Beijing to those that are stridently pro-Beijing and absolutely every degree of somewhere in between. However, most all are afraid to say anything publicly that is anything less than exactly what Beijing puts in a press release. I think it would be great to get a more vigorous public intellectual discussion on (where I am) economic matters in China but the fact that there aren’t Chinese intellectuals willing to run the career risks to do so, gets to the very heart of the problem Mr. Kuo claims to want to combat. Basic point: you can’t have it both ways. Speaking now for myself, and only myself, in most everyway I do not think what I do is anything special. I have had people say some complementary things about my work which I appreciate but I honestly do not think what I do is all that special. I am an economics data geek who spends most of my time just poring over data tables. To show you how perverse the entire intellectual environment in China is, if I was in any other country, my work might be considered interesting but nothing outside the ordinary of what other commentators, public intellectuals, economists, the media, think tanks, or even the central bank might do. I do work hard and think I have found some interesting things but the fact I am willing to say anything from inside China is maybe the biggest most disturbing thing to Beijing. On top of this is that the vast majority of what I do is really just data detective work using Beijing’s own data. To complain about an economist studying the data and saying it doesn’t add up is like a politician complaining that the press is using his own words and actions against him. If you have a problem with what I am saying, start with the enormously problematic data that provides such rich fodder. That is the entire point of intellectual debate discussion and free information. I will not say never, but I try in most of my writings to be restrained and focus on the data and avoid sensationalistic headlines. Believe me, it would be very easy to be a lot more sensationalist about the Chinese economy. If you want to complain about critical intellectuals, maybe trying looking at what we are talking and writing about like the glaring data discrepancies in official data. The fact that a grumpy professor who wears Chucks, jeans, and t-shirts even might register on the radar to Beijing shows just how perverse the intellectual environment in China is. Either the Chinese economy and political structure is a lot more fragile and insecure than I suspected or I am a lot more influential than I thought which there is no way that is remotely possible. I am just a guy with a blog writing about data and Beijing or Mr. Kuo feel it necessary to complain about professors like this? Absurd. The critiques by Mr. Kuo about the lack of balance and intellectual criticism might be well served with a little introspection about why more voices aren’t willing to engage in intellectual discussion rather than the tired whining cliché propagated by his previous paymasters in Beijing.